As you all know, the next ATP1000 & WTA Premier Mandatory tournament is the Mutua Madrid Open starting this Monday. In 2012, as an experiment Blue Clay was used & from 2013 onwards, we are back to the traditional Red clay. If you are interested to know how Blue Clay and Red Clay differ, then read it right here. Players have started reaching Madrid and have started practicing for the Mutua Madrid Open.
File Picture of Maria Sharapova practicing on the red clay at Mutua Madrid Open, 2013
Madrid is situated at an Altitude of almost 667 meters or 2188 Feet above the sea level. Though, Madrid isn't the highest European City, but one thing is for sure, that of all the cities where the European Clay Court season is played (namely Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Paris), Madrid is situated at a much higher altitude than the combined altitude of all these 4 cities.
(A Sunset Picture of Madrid taken by my friend Miguel A. González)
So, let us discuss how different it is to play Tennis in a place like Madrid which is situated at a comparatively higher altitude?
Before I begin this discussion, let me firstly tell you that I have spent two years of my life at Dharamshala (Himachal Pradesh, India) studying and playing Tennis. Its situated almost at an altitude of 1457m or 4780 feet from the sea level which is more than double of Madrid, so have a fair idea on this topic .
We all were taught in Grade-5th, that an increase in altitude causes a decrease in air pressure & resistance. So, let us analyze point by point the impact of high Altitude.
i) Impact on Court Conditions ::
In areas which are closer to sea level, when the ball is hit through the air, Air pushes against the ball, thus slowing down the speed.
Decrease in air resistance in courts which are situated at higher altitude (elevation) causes the ball to travel much faster from the racquet.
In places like La Caja Mágica ("The Magic Box'"), also known as the Manzanares Park Tennis Center where Mutua Madrid Open (Madrid Masters) is played which are situated at a higher elevation of almost 2188 feet or 667 meters, air resistance is less, so for this very reason, in Madrid you always notice faster returns, faster serves and faster hits.
Picture of La Caja Mágica getting ready for the Mutua Madrid Open 2013
As the ball goes through the air faster, and therefore penetrates the court better. So, obviously, the courts even if they are clay court(be it blue or red clay) are faster than as compared to the courts situated near to the sea levels.
In a nutshell as research engineer A. Terry Bahill brilliantly summarized it, "The distance a ball travels is inversely related the Air density".
ii) Impact on Spin :::
If you have been carefully studying the pattern of play of Rafa Nadal (arguably one of the greatest clay court player of all times), besides his great agility, the biggest reason for his success has been his 'Top Spin' embedded forehand.
But, because of the decreased air resistance on higher altitude areas, Topspin results in more severe movements & thus, causing more unforced errors unlike other low altitude courts & that pretty much takes away the advantage of Topspin.
(If you have studied Physics, this should explain you better). This is due to the lesser Magnus Force (F) at higher altitudes. With smaller Magnus Forces acting on the ball, less flight deviation due to spin will occur.
F= 1/2 p*V*A*L
where ρ = density of the fluid or air in this case , A = Altitude, L = lift coefficient
iii) High Altitude Balls being heavier :::
Also, as we recently discussed, Madrid Masters (Mutua Madrid Open) uses high pressure balls, which are bigger in diameter. The size of the ball is almost 6 percent larger than regular balls. This slows the ball as it travels through the air so that its speed will be closer to what it would be at lower altitudes.
This way there is about the same amount of air resistance on a 'high altitude' ball at high altitudes as on a 'low altitude' ball at low altitudes.
Though the balls are pressurized to the same degree, the core of these balls are not as dense, resulting in more surface area being exposed to the Air pressure thus resulting in a lower bounce as compared to the normal balls.
Picture of Wilson High altitude Tennis balls
iv) Which type of players get benefited from these changes ::
a. As we discussed, the higher the altitude the faster the ball will travel, so naturally, it benefits the players who can serve & volley and come to the net more often.
b. One of the main reasons why you always find Single handed back hand players like Roger Federer having more unforced errors on normal clay courts is because the bounce is on the higher side. Once the ball goes above the shoulder level on the backhand side, it is very difficult to control the ball if you are a single handed backhand player.
Just do a mock test of what I mean, try to play a single handed backhand shot to a ball that is higher than your left shoulder and then, you will understand what I meant by it being difficult for a single handed backhand player.
So, as we discussed that as the high pressure balls have a lower bounce, so that makes it easier for the single handed backhand players to control their backhands on the courts at higher altitudes like at Madrid..
v) Why Baseliners find it difficult to cope up with conditions on a higher altitude ::
As we discussed, higher altitude means an decrease in Oxygen level. This makes it harder to breathe for players that are used to playing from the baseline and used to run more around the baseline.
In a sport as tough as Tennis, regular Oxygen consumption is must for players who run like Athletes. For sure, playing on higher altitude has a huge strain on body and that's why, when we were discussing whether Rafa Nadal will play at Mutua Madrid Open, 2013, we had discussed this in great details.
vi) Why shouldn't all courts that are situated on higher altitude be Indoors?
Best solution to avoid all that we discussed above has to be playing on an Indoor court. Indoor courts allow for a "true" game of tennis. There is a constant temperature, no wind, sun or rain.If all tennis were to be played indoors we would have a more standardized game. Every tournament on the world circuit would be similar; the weather conditions give tennis its character.
But, wouldn't the sport then become monotonous and absolutely the same? So, for sure, Tennis played on different courts and conditions makes it entertaining for fans as well as the players. Would the sport have any charm if the same player kept winning every single time he entered the court?
So, in a nutshell, on Tennis courts which are situated at Higher altitudes like Madrid, the ball does travel faster which benefits natural serve & volley kind of play & its hard for baseliners to adjust at such conditions.
PS: A special thanks to one of our friends from Tokyo & a keen reader of this forum Kiyoshi Fujioka for motivating me to do this post . Feel free to drop in your comments and feed-back about this topic.